Dispatch #5: Pittsburgh and Cross-Pollination

Pittsburgh is a city known by us outsiders mostly as a tough-minded ex-steel town, a rust-belt city that crashed and hasn't fully recovered.


And for all I know that might be true. But what I've experienced in four brief visits has been warm welcome. And an arts scene that seems vibrant – one where, poet Crystal Hoffman told me a few years ago, all arts are, and can be, supportive of each other because the scene isn't big enough to force you to choose between say, literary and performance. Or sculpture and music. She spoke of cross-pollination. And my friends there, Sherrie Flick (the Queen of Literary Pittsburgh) and her husband, Rick Schweikert – who have shepherded my golden experience of their city, confirm that through the people they introduce me to every time I'm there.

It tickles my hunger, because I love artistic cross-pollination, and I've gotten away from it. And while there are many great things about Boston, and in particular about Boston's literary community (hello, Grub Street), such cross-pollination is not currently a big part of my life. And I'm reminded that I want it to be. So when I'm done with this book tour thing, and even as I go about it, I'm looking and listening for opportunity. For sparks.

Dispatch #3: Buffalo. Brave.

Wrapping up my three days in Buffalo with a birthday night concert: Cowboy Junkies performing in full their first album, "The Trinity Session." A lasting favorite of mine. A band I've continued to have a soft spot for and enjoy, while also acknowledging (and I'm far from alone in this) that they've never matched the fire of that first album.

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So I was interested last night to see the band's singer, Margo Timmins, express some trepidation about performing those songs again after all these years. I wondered what that was about - could have been a lot of things. After an opening set of their newer work, they took a break, then came back out and she said something that will continue to endear her/them to me. She said they were going to play The Trinity Session in full, and then she said, a little sheepish, "I was younger – and braver – then."

I get it. The emotional space of that album is raw and pure. It's what I – and so many others – have loved about it. And I can see not wanting to go there. I respect her for being willing to say it. 

I don't know if that's true for her. And I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing in her life, or just a fact. 

But here's something I do know, about me: I'm getting braver as I get older. Finally comfortable enough in my own skin to risk being me. Singing my song. And I like it. I like feeling free to do that. I like the connection it allows me to make with people. I even like the moments when it makes me fall flat, embarrassed and naked in some awkward public moment. Because it feels good to be me. And I want to keep getting braver. Taking risks. Because for me, it means I'm fully alive in the moments of my life.

So today, as I drive, I'm going to listen to Cowboy Junkies sing "Working on a Building," and be glad for this whole wild journey, and the concert last night, and the students I met this week at SUNY Fredonia and at Medaille College in Buffalo, and everyone who came out to Talking Leaves Bookstore on Wednesday night, and I'm going to get ready to give it everything I've got in Pittsburgh tonight.


Dispatch #2: Gospel of Christ Baptist Church

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We had to stop. Morbid curiosity and perverse fascination? Yeah, that was there a bit. Also, it's just so particular to here, closest town Liberty, North Carolina. And one more thing. There's a pure yearning in small churches that I want a piece of, even just to stand on the spot and try to soak in what I can. But then there was this: what we found seemed more like a survivalist compound: a strange mix of seemingly abandoned, and new-and-locked-up. And in the three or four minutes that we were there, three large pickup trucks driven by large men in camo gear. Hmm. 

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Road dispatch #1: Durham, NC

There's always fear. For me, most often, it's the fear of humiliation. Will I be exposed as a fool, a fraud. Will people come, and thereby validate me. Petty, human worries. On the good nights, I get past that and the good stuff happens.

Thursday. What gives me hope, almost always, is conversations with young people. Duke University, a seminar on grief and grieving. The students have read an excerpt of HEADLONG, cobbled-together sections in which Nick struggles to care for his dying and difficult father Thomas. To determine how much he can give to a man who gave little to him; to a relationship that is an ongoing and ever-present ache.

"I have zero sympathy for Nick," says Lauren. "He is SO cold. The man is dying and Nick can't put aside whatever issues he has to just be kind, be loving."

"I totally disagree," says Elena. "Thomas was never a father to him. How can you expect someone to give back in a relationship when you never gave? Besides, if Nick is cold, it's on the surface. Trying not to feel so he doesn't get hurt more. I get it."


And, ten minutes into a class where the author is sitting in the room, a potential albatross, these freshmen are deep into a discussion about love and loyalty, duty and distance. At one point, they turn to ask me what I think: how I'm taking their very honest discussion.

"I'm honored," I say. "Thrilled. Nick is alive to you."

Fast forward. Friday night. Jehanne's living room after the reading at The Regulator Bookshop. There's maybe eight or nine of us who have migrated from a lengthy discussion at the bookshop about activism and faith and constructive anger to Jehanne's house for wine and food and more talk . And I'm learning about a movement in North Carolina. Moral Mondays, weekly demonstrations to protest legislative changes to undo the social safety net – cuts to unemployment benefits, rejection of Federal Medicaid enhancements. Jill has gotten herself arrested, as a way to make herself heard that this matters to her. And the question comes up, why are you down there every Monday? And she thinks about it, and shrugs, and offers words in a tone that suggest she doesn't think they're an answer but that are, for her, an urgent call: "I have to DO something," she says. "I can't just sit by."

Saturday. Jehanne and I go for a hike and check out a town called Saxapahaw, about an hour from Durham, where she's read about a local business – the Saxapahaw General Store – that's serving as a community gathering place. It sounds great. And it is. Outside, "share baskets," where folks leave anything extra or extraneous they may have – I see canned food, towels, a flannel shirt – and/or take anything they might need. Inside, all kinds of people - farmers, bikers, tourists, neo-hippies. The young and pierced, the aged and stooped. And great, locally sourced organic foods. Music on Saturday nights.

"Come on by some night," the owner says to us on our way out after one of the best post-hike burgers either Jehanne or I have ever eaten.

That night, we go to see the movie documentary "Inequality for All," a tour de force featuring Robert Reich, who's now officially a hero of mine. As we're leaving, Jehanne says, "Well, that was a perfect movie to see this weekend." Yup. And I'm thinking about my favorite moment in the movie, where Reich talks about why he's now teaching, and basically it's the opportunity to talk with – to be around – young people, to encourage them as they think about how they want to engage the world. How he believes they will change their communities and, just maybe, the world. Seeds of possibility.

on saying goodbye (part 1)

"I came home to bury my father, but he wouldn't die." 


That's the fiction version. 

The version I lived is more complicated, much harder for me to put into words. But it has to do with fathers and sons, and the difficult emotional space of saying goodbye. 

Even that phrase presupposes that there will be an emotional space in which to say goodbye, and implies that such a space will be a shared one. Or maybe I infer.

Instead, here's something of how it was: it was January 2013, and my father was dying of kidney cancer that had metastasized, and he didn't want to know anything about it. I was in the midst of an intense deadline project at my day job, and teaching three classes, and trying to maintain a writing life. And I would visit my dad every Monday after work, because that was what he and I could both endure.

Our visits would go something like this: I would ask him how he was doing, receive the inevitable (and understandable) shrug (rough translation, how the hell you think I'm doing, I'm dying); then we'd both sit with the awkward a few minutes; then he'd put his headphones back on and watch TV. I'd sit by his side for 30 minutes, watching the clock for 23 of those, and then I'd touch his arm and tell him I was leaving.
There was nothing I could do for him, and no indication that my presence made him more relaxed. More comfortable. In fact, there was evidence of the opposite in his worried eyes, the tense muscles in his wasted arms. In our history.

It's too easy to say we were simply different people, maybe each incapable of really understanding the other.  Because there was love in those visits, as strained – and constrained – as they were. It's more accurate to say that however much we might strive for shared emotional space with those we love, we don't always get there, not in the ways we want to. It makes those shared spaces something to treasure, but – I am learning from my now deceased and always distanced father – the efforts that never connect are also part of the bargain of being human. They are, in the end, their own emotional spaces.


words to remember this week...

Yup, it's been a heady couple weeks here in Ronland. New book out. A couple favorable reviews. A first print run (modest, but still) that sold out in 9 days. It's all great, and I'm really excited about it, and about the possibilities for Headlong in the world. 

I'm also reminding myself of what this writing life is all about, and why I do it. I do it for the work itself, and for the conversations that result from it. The people I get to meet, and maybe know. 

And that makes me remember one of my favorite quotes. It's on my writing wall, and tattooed on my forehead as I hit the road: 

"I refuse to write for more people than I can listen to." - Thomas Sayers Ellis.